In Silent Spring, what is Carson referring to when she writes that there is a "human price" for the use of toxins?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It seems commonplace now to accept that chemicals sprayed on plants can have adverse health effects on humans. However, at the time Carson was writing her book, scientists were still struggling to establish this fact. This is not uncommon: what scientists or doctors intuitively know often runs ahead of the experiments or studies that prove the case. For example, in the 1990s, Dr. John Lee warned against hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women. He based this on anecdotal evidence. It was not until the early 2000s that double-blind experiments proved him correct. For years, too, scientists and doctors were concerned about the link between smoking and cancer, but it was decades before the science indisputably proved cause and effect.

Carson uses state-of-the-art scientific and medical research of the time to show the relationship between pesticide use and human illness, including cancer—and she also argues that pesticide use might cause human extinction. She discusses the cumulative effects of various toxins lodging in human tissues. She puts this in the context of the long fight against disease, saying we have moved from concern from such killers as cholera and smallpox to a concern with what she calls

the never-ending stream of chemicals of which pesticides are a part, chemicals now pervading the world in which we live, acting upon us directly and indirectly, separately and collectively. Their presence casts a shadow that is no less ominous because it is formless and obscure, no less frightening because it is simply impossible to predict the effects of lifetime exposure to chemical and physical agents that are not part of the biological experience of man. ‘We all live under the haunting fear that something may corrupt the environment to the point where man joins the dinosaurs as an obsolete form of life,’ says Dr. David Price of the United States Public Health Service.

We can see from the passage above that Carson uses scare tactics, such as implying that pesticides could wipe out the entire human race. Her argument is effective: while we might mourn the loss of songbirds and other species, we tend to be motivated to alarm and action by what threatens us directly. Nobody wants to die of cancer from unnecessary pesticide use. Very few people would like to see humans go the way of dinosaurs.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In chapter 12, Carson discusses the "human price" of pesticides. She writes that over time, exposure to toxins results in changes to the body that we cannot see but that are nonetheless quite dangerous. Toxins affect molecules in the body, leading to changes in tissues and organs. Though these problems may not manifest themselves right away, they can be the result of toxins stored in the body which are then released from the fatty tissues. She writes of an article in the journal of the American Medical Association that discusses the storage of toxins in the adipose tissues, and she also discusses the ability of toxins to affect the liver and the nervous system. While some of these problems occur right away, others are delayed. Nonetheless, they can be quite damaging. Carson provides several examples of toxins that have been shown to dangerously affect the brain and nervous system. 

pholland14 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The "human price" that Carson mentions refers to how people can be slowly poisoned over time from pesticides that build up in their immune system.  Even as far back as the 1960s, there was some talk in the scientific community that pesticides could cause harm in humans over a period of time.  Carson argued that the food chain is interconnected and that poison tends to stay on fruits and vegetables, harming people who have few other options to avoid these poisons.  During this time period, there were studies done to show a link between certain pesticides and certain cancers. 

Carson wrote about a human price in order to sway readers who would otherwise not be affected by the loss of the environment.  By putting a human face to pesticide use, Carson hoped to stir more people to action in order to ban pesticides such as DDT.  

lynnebh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

She is referring to the poisonous effects that toxins have on people. For example, pesticides get into drinking water and make people sick, even killing some. Pesticides and agricultural chemicals get into our food supply. We eat fruits and vegetables sprayed with DDT and it makes us sick. It causes cancer and all sorts of other horrible conditions. Carson was trying to get humans to see that we are an important part of the natural world and that we cannot keep poisoning the environment. Humans should be better stewards of the natural world, seeking out better and less harmful ways of controlling insects. When we use toxins, we are upsetting the balance of nature. She believes it is arrogant and dangerous for humans to think they should control nature instead of coexisting with nature.